Under the Never Sky

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

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In this dystopia, some people live in enclosed pods and spend their time in a virtual reality called the Realms. Other people live a more desperate existence in tribes exposed to the hostile atmosphere of the Aether sky, but some of these Outsiders have special enhanced senses that give them advantages. Aria is one of the Dwellers; when she gets kicked out of her home, she encounters Peregrine, an Outsider with a sense of smell so keen he’s basically a mind-reader. Their interests align, so they travel together as their feelings for each other grow.

The story is told with alternating third person point of view, described in prose that’s well above average for the genre. The environment is otherworldly and beautiful in its wild chaos, and the people who live there fit well into its scenic strangeness. There are a couple well-plotted surprises at the end, the kind I like because they seem logical and appropriate, yet original and unexpected.

I like when the big thematic ideas and the actions driving the plot are strongly connected, especially in dystopia novels. In this world, the people who live almost exclusively inside the virtual reality risk a disorder called Degenerative Limbic Syndrome, because the brain’s limbic system, or animal mind, stops working, and people go nuts. The book makes an argument for the value of real life, physical sensation, and work over illusory worlds and their seductive, easy, instant gratification, and Aria’s sense of wonder as she travels with Peregrine are also consistent with this theme.

Aria and Peregrine fall in love despite knowing their relationship cannot last. Peregrine feels cultural pressure to perpetuate his gift through breeding with a woman with similar talents, and has seen the negative consequences of failure to do so in his own family. The realism and heartbreak that this situation causes, and the characters’ strength in facing it, make their coupling all the more poignant. Doomed relationships like this seem somewhat rare in YA, where you’re more likely to find couples who fully expect to be together until death, though they’re only teens. Even more rare is when a couple without hope for a future siezes the day and consumates the relationship despite knowing it won’t last. The decision to have sex also fits well with Aria’s discovery of the world of real sensation outside the virtual Realms.

This is the first story in a series or trilogy, so I’m looking forward to later books. At the end of this book, both Aria and Peregrine make discoveries about themselves and their world, and recieve new roles that they must now live up to. It will be interesting to see how their relationship develops as they complete their new duties and face the challenges ahead.

Unravel Me

Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi

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This sequel to Shatter Me picks up with Juliette and Adam in Omega Point, the headquarters of the resistance movement. Most of the action of the book has to do with their training, plans to take down the oppressive regime, and, of course, relationship drama. Generally, the book fulfills the promise of the previous one, which I noted in my review, has some themes similar to Twilight, but is several steps above that series because it has healthier relationships, a more capable heroine, and better prose.

This volume develops the love triangle that began with the first one. Juliette and Adam break up because his resistance to her power is wearing off, and she might hurt him accidentally. So the way is open for Warner, the last book’s villain, the bad boy, the one who needs saving. Juliette finds herself unable to hate him despite all he’s done to hurt her and Adam. Once she learns about his rough childhood, she feels a kinship and sympathy with him that feeds her growing attraction to him. There’s a really steamy scene where Warner nearly seduces Juliette, described in erotic detail.

So often in teen romance novels like this, there’s this idea that it’s not love unless it’s all-consuming and co-dependent. So I enjoyed her strong, self-aware rejection of Warner, when she maturely recognized that the bad-boy characteristics that make him so appealing would make him a horrible partner. I also appreciated that Juliette became more independent of Adam in this book, understanding that her previous overreliance on him wasn’t healthy:

I can love him, but I can’t depend on him to be my backbone. I can’t be my own person if I constantly require someone else to hold me together.

There’s something about Juliette’s voice that seems to emphasize her fragility. She always seems on the edge of some kind of breakdown. It makes her appear weaker than she is, which was slightly annoying to me as a reader. (This aspect of her character might come out more in the audiobook I listened to than in the text.) However, toward the end of the novel she makes some concrete decisions and becomes determined to take down the evil Reconstruction government and its leader, Anderson. There’s a bad ass inside her that’s been hidden, and I just hope the next novel really lets her out.

Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr

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I enjoyed Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series about fairies, so I was interested to learn about her new novel about witches and daimons and their violent rivalry spanning two worlds. As in the fairy novels, the imagined world is richly detailed, dark, and violent, full of power struggles between different factions. There are some good surprises and revelations in the plot as well. Marr’s sentences put her solidly among the better YA writers popular today. She goes for psychological complexity as well as fantastic spectacle.

The second and third chapters and the character of Aya were the things that really hooked me in to this novel. Aya is so ambitious that she’s fighting in a dangerous tournament for the right to rule the daimon world, even though it means facing her fiance. She and Belias do seem to love each other, but she refuses to ever have children. For some reason, I feel like a young character expressing not only a lack of desire but a downright antipathy toward motherhood is really subversive in a YA book. Children are so central to the typical happily-ever-after script that denying them from the outset seems to undermine the entire structure and the assumptions underlying it.

The other major plot thread is the love story between Kaleb, a low-caste daimon who’s also competing in the tournament, and Mallory, who grew up in the human world, believing a witch was her father. The two stories are intertwined well, and both relationships are a bit troubled and twisted, involving big lies and manipulation.

The ending implies a sequel, so I’ll be looking out for the next book. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how these messed-up couples develop.

Cheryl Strayed at NPL

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, visited and spoke at the Nashville Public Library on Thursday night. I enjoyed Wild, but thought it was somewhat overrated. Nevertheless, I knew it would be worthwhile to see Strayed speak, and it was. She spent most of her time telling us the background for the book, the story behind it, why she decided to hike the PCT. Much of the story was also in the book, but she was a good speaker and it’s a good story. She only wrote the book years after her journey, though, and her explanation for that delay was one of my favorite moments in the talk. She said she needed years to process that experience and to become skilled enough to be ready for it as a writer. Then, she connected that to the definition and purpose of memoir. She said that you don’t have to do some big, grand thing like hike the PCT or climb Mount Everest to write a memoir, which is a relief to aspiring writers with hopelessly mundane lives. Instead, memoir is about using one’s own story to help others and illuminate the human condition; in this way it has the same purpose as all literature.

Strayed’s poor physical preparation for her hike was a big part of the memoir, but she told us how she prepared mentally instead by deciding not to be afraid. The experience took her out of her head and placed her in her body in a way that grounded her and made her feel strong, in the end. And looking back, the grand thing about the trip was the accumulation of days and pains she endured, the fact that she was ultimately able to bear the unbearable physically, and that somehow translated into being mentally and emotionally capable of handling her overwhelming grief and regret. These are ideas I’m clinging to, and hopefully bringing into the delivery room with me next month.

Strayed concluded her talk with a letter/essay from the book that compiles her Dear Sugar advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things. It was basically a letter to her younger self, which seemed fitting.

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict

The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

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This book is a prequel to the Mysterious Benedict Society series, and I think it’s the best of the bunch. In the later books, Nicholas Benedict is an old man who brings together several super-intelligent children to help him save the world from mind control. This novel tells the story of his childhood and how he became the benevolent mastermind of the othe books. It begins with his arrival at an orphanage and mostly concerns a search for a treasure on the premises. There’s something about the whimsical tone that fits the vaguely postwar setting of this novel better than the other three’s more contemporary timeline. The boarding school tradition that inspired this book goes better with the puns and the exaggerations than the action/buddy comedy genre of the other novels as well. There are moments that reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, especially the comically absurd baddies and the precocious protagonist’s efforts to manipulate adults who aren’t as smart as he is. (This is a high compliment.)

The other great thing is that this book seems to show more explicit character growth than the other ones, and this growth is connected more strongly to the mystery that drives the plot. Nicholas learns about the goodness in human nature and discovers the kind of person he wants to become through his search for the treasure. He realizes how selfish some of his actions and ideas were and makes amends. Also, the mystery and its solution seem more thematically connected and resonant.

Maybe one thing that makes this book better than the others is its lack of a villain. In the other three novels, Mr. Curtain (Nicholas Benedict’s estranged twin brother) is cartoonish in his dastardly pursuit of power. The closest characters this prequel has to villains are some school bullies and Mr. Collum, the orphanage’s director and Nicholas’s main competition in his search for the treasure. By the end, though, it seems clear that Mr. Collum isn’t so much evil as inept and bad with kids. And the bullies are only small nuisances to the brilliant Benedict, who outwits them constantly.

Beautiful Redemption

Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

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This book concludes the Caster Chronicles, a young adult series that I’d compare to the Southern Vampire Mysteries (Sookie Stackhouse, AKA True Blood). The setting is Southern and the town is full of crazy characters, some of which have cool caster powers or super librarian knowledge. Some of the visual images are cool, in a stylized, magic hipster way. The male narrator makes the series unusual in the YA romance genre.

At the end of the last book, Beautiful Chaos, the narrator Ethan sacrificed himself to preserve “the order of things,” by jumping from a water tower to his death. This volume was concerned with his afterlife and return from the dead. Ethan’s travels in the land of the dead gave the series a touch of the epic hero a la Joseph Campbell. The afterlife was imagined in a vivid and original way. There’s a mystery and a quest narrative and a love story. One thing that made me somewhat uncomfortable with the books were their dependence on the magical negro trope.

This series is in the better half of YA lit, far superior to other paranormal romances like Twilight, Fallen, or Hush, Hush. But it’s not quite up to the level of The Fault in Our Stars, Across the Universe, Kristin Cashore’s novels, or Maggie Stiefvater’s fairy books. The language is ok but not remarkable, the drama is a bit contrived, and the books are probably twice as long as they need to be. Worth picking up if you like this kind of thing, but if you don’t you’re not missing much.

The Godfather

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

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The Godfather is a male power fantasy, sick and twisted. The pleasure of the book comes from watching the plots and counterplots reveal themselves, from watching Vito, Sonny, and Michael Corleone outwit their opponents and ultimately get revenge. That’s why the puppet-strings image from this cover make it so appropriate.

In the world of this book, women don’t have any agency, they’re pawns in the game, and sometimes even trophies. Puzo relates the sexism of the macho mafia culture in a way that shows he’s 100% aware that the culture is sexist. He makes it impossible for readers to ignore the sexism. Maybe this is good; it illuminates the sexism for some readers who might not have seen it at all. Some big examples are the rhetoric of ownership in marriage in Sicily, Johnny Fontane’s entitled womanizing, domestic violence and the family’s attitude toward it. But at the same time, the novel doesn’t seem to show any hope for the women caught in this culture. They have no way to escape or overthrow it. Their only recourse is to pray for their husbands’ souls. I don’t think this is because Mario Puzo doesn’t think women are people. Although I think it is true that he’s less interested in his female characters than his male ones, perhaps because his subject is power and the women have less of it. He gives us insight into the women’s minds and thoughts, especially Connie Corleone and Kay Adams. Their stories are presented sympathetically, but they never threaten or even question the system in any significant way.

Personally, I think I might have been most weirded out by Lucy Mancini’s vaginal reconstruction surgery. Maybe I wasn’t understanding the medical issue here, but it seemed totally superfluous and cosmetic, not to mention focused on her partner’s pleasure rather than her health. In fact, the problem seemed to be that she had orgasms too easily. I couldn’t figure out what could possibly be wrong with her vagina. The entire incident seemed to have nothing to do with the main plot of the story, and I had no idea what its point was.

I wasn’t very impressed with the writing style, which seemed almost too straightforward, not literary at all, and at times repetitious.

Here’s an interesting article on The Godfather, which compares it to Little Women from a feminist perspective. The basic gist is that in both books, people are trapped by overly narrow gender roles. The father in The Godfather tries to help his sons escape the macho mafia culture, but they are killed by it, corrupted by it, or sucked back into it after a brief reprieve. Meanwhile, the mother in Little Women tries to help her daughters to become more fulfilled in their marriages and careers than she was, and she mostly succeeds. The comparison shows that men can be even more trapped by overly narrow masculine gender roles than women are by patriarchal marriage. It’s especially dangerous for men when masculine identity is tied so closely to violence as in the mafia culture.

Lean In

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

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I’ve been looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book ever since I heard about it. I loved her TED talk, and felt sure it would address some topics that I’m very concerned with. As the reviews started coming out, and the backlash began, I only became more interested in forming my own opinion on the book causing all this debate.

For the most part, I think the nastiest parts of the backlash against Sandberg come from a phenomenon she describes herself: successful women are seen as unlikeable and are resented, especially by other women. It’s easy to feel a bit put off when someone so incredibly lucky and privileged goes on about how great things are for her. I know that feeling very well indeed. But it’s important to recognize that feeling as a personal, emotional reaction, rather than bringing it into an intellectual debate.

Sandberg’s critics say that in concentrating on the women at the top, she ignores those working low-paying jobs. I think it’s ok for Sandberg to write a book that has a narrow audience if she wants to. She is careful to specify that her advice is not suited to women working minimum wage, so she’s not steering anyone into economic suicide here. She voices a lot of empathy with women who don’t have fulfilling careers, and in fact her advice is meant to help them remedy that situation.

Other critics say that in giving strategies for women to survive in the corporate world and move up in its ranks, Sandberg is implicitly blaming the victim for not getting ahead. They say that responsibility should be laid at the feet of our sexist institutions and the policies that make it harder for women to succeed than men. Sandberg calls this a chicken-and-egg problem and admits that she’s focusing on one side of the problem and fully supports those who focus on the other. Sounds reasonable to me. There is room in this world for both individual and collective approaches to changing institutionalized sexism, and the two different ways of tackling the issue don’t have to undermine each other. Sandberg’s approach is probably more immediately satisfying, because I think it can feel more directly useful and encouraging to give individuals strategies for handling the everyday manifestations of sexism than to list the laws and policy changes that would make the world better for women, especially since those policies seem so far from becoming reality right now.

Of all Sandberg’s critics, her most fair and apt one focused on the many times that she contradicted herself in the book’s pages. I think a reader who feels torn about a particular professional or personal decision could come away from the book with justifications for almost any choice she could possibly make. This is partly because of all the qualifications and asterisks Sandberg feels compelled to add to her statements. It’s also because of the rhetoric of choice that’s grown up around this topic, which Sandberg mostly accepts. Either way, it leads to more confusion and angst for women trying to figure out how to balance their competing commitments. I’m not sure if there’s much of a way around this problem, though, because these decisions are so individual, and Sandberg is wise to avoid making one-size-fits-all recommendations.

Sandberg’s writing style is not her greatest strength. She has a tendency to introduce topics with bland cliches, and the tone is a cross between motivational speaker and management consultant. She’s not a literary stylist, but she doesn’t really have to be. She gets her message across, and I suppose that’s ultimately what matters.

Overall, I liked and enjoyed the book and felt motivated by its message. In some of the research and anecdotes Sandberg related, I recognized some of my own experiences, worries, and frustrations, and that made the book reassuring and resonant as well as encouraging. This book might become my go-to gift for all female graduates.